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Posted: Oct 09, 2012

Unrealised potential for sci-fi to inspire future scientists

(Nanowerk News) Science fiction can transport readers to other worlds and to imaginings of what the future may be like. In many cases, the settings are purely fantastical, while in others, they present eerily accurate predictions of the future. Tanks and space shuttles were mentioned well before they physically existed. The same can be said of computer tablets, video phone conferencing, virtual reality games, gesture-based computer interfaces and even the office cubicle. But perhaps more importantly, science fiction can also inspire the young generation to work in the sciences. But according to a study conducted by the University of Valencia in Spain, it's an opportunity that is not being utilised to its full potential.
'A current concern is that students are no longer studying science and engineering, and this trend is more common amongst females. Science fiction can be useful in awaking the scientific vocation of younger students,' explained Jordi Solbes Matarredona, researcher at the University of Valencia and co-author of the study published in the journal Enseñanza de las Ciencias.
Jordi Solbes along with Fanny Petit submitted a questionnaire to 173 students at four different state and grant-maintained schools in both rural and urban areas with the aim of understanding the level of science fiction knowledge and its acceptance in schools. They noted a total of 578 specific references to science fiction culture. The most important mentions by number were 'Stars Wars', 'The Matrix', 'X-Men', 'I, Robot', 'Spiderman' and 'The Day after Tomorrow'.
'In addition, there were 78 references that demonstrated confusion between science fiction and magic, action and adventure, since the likes of "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" were mentioned ... along with the "The NeverEnding Story" and "Mission Impossible", ' outlines Solbes. Unfortunately, several classic films of the genre were hardly mentioned: 'Planet of the Apes' had nine mentions, '2001, A Space Odyssey' had two, and 'Blade Runner' was not mentioned at all.
Despite this poor showing, some 24 % of the respondents viewed science fiction in a positive light, and 31% spoke of advances in both science and technology. Furthermore, 47% had a positive outlook on scientists, 35% had a distorted or exaggerated outlook and 12% had an unfavourable outlook. Negative comments described scientists as 'selfish', as 'people who want to rule the world' and 'spend their life in the lab' upholding the typical image of the 'crazy scientist'.
These views may be a result of how scientists are portrayed in superhero films such as 'X-Men', 'Spiderman' and 'Hulk'. 'In these films, the antagonist is usually the crazy scientist that wants to rule the world or even increase their power after finding a powerful "weapon",' says the researcher; in 'Star Wars' and 'The Matrix', scientist don't make an appearance.
The study also analysed 31 compulsory education and upper school science and technology textbooks for physics and chemistry, biology and geology and technology subjects along with teacher books, CD-ROMS and activity books. These texts were printed relatively recently and came from seven of the main publishing houses between 2000 and 2008. They were all analysed to discover the presence of or lack of science fiction.
'Out of the 31 secondary and upper school books analysed, in 22 of them not one single reference to science fiction is made, either in photographs, comments, texts, activities or web references,' states the researcher.
In five of the books, an element of science fiction could be found in either the form of a photo, text and a problem-question; three books displayed evidence of two of these elements; and just one book (physics and chemistry) contained all three science fiction elements.
'The most salient of these was a photograph of Superman found in one of the complimentary texts on the discovery of the mineral jadarite, whose chemical formula is very similar to that of the fictitious mineral kryptonite, ' explain the researchers.
They also found a textbook with an image of the Starship Enterprise from the series 'Star Trek', which accompanies a complementary text on the energy sources of ships and the distance problems that Captain Nemo, from 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea', might face on his underwater journey. Another problem posed referred to the revolutions per minute that the space station from '2001, A Space Odyssey' would need to undergo to simulate Earth's gravity. In the technology books, an activity was found involving the design of a car in 2050, as well as a reference to the robotics laws of Isaac Asimov, and another that mentions a science fiction cinema series with examples of films such as 'The Matrix' and 'Blade Runner'.
'Since textbooks make up the bulk of what it taught, this tells us that, along with the scarce number of activities proposed by teaching staff, science fiction is hardly present in the classroom, despite it being viewed positively by teachers, ' conclude the researchers.
The researchers also discovered that teachers overall were positive about science fiction. A total of 56 teachers were asked what science fiction they were familiar with, and to categorise whether it was in cinema, television series or book format. According to the results, the 'Star Wars' saga was still the most popular, along with 'Back to the Future' and 'The Matrix'. However, other classic films like 'Metropolis', 'Blade Runner', '2001, A Space Odyssey' and 'I, Robot' were mentioned more often than in the younger group. Overall the teaching staff also mentioned books twice as often as the pupils. 'Some 38 % of responses directly refer to improved motivation and more interest in sciences amongst pupils,' points out Solbes.
As a result of their findings, the researchers propose learning activities based on science fiction films and series as a way of verifying whether these activities do actually improve the image that students have of science and scientists.
Source: Cordis
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